Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Missing the Point About Textbook Rental

Soundings was a sensation of Irish publishing two years ago. The Leaving Cert poetry anthology, long gone the way of the dodo, was swept from the shelves on its return to publication by people eager to reconnect. It was never entirely clear what it was the wanted to reconnect with – the Great Tradition, their lost youth, a Christmas present list run out of control – but Soundings touched a chord deep in the Irish nation. It is a beautiful book, and it really did make a magical present.

The publication last year of the Inter Cert short story anthology, Exploring English 1, was a little too obviously a rip-off for people to take. It was branded a little too much like the re-issued Soundings, with the cod drawings on the front and all, for people not to get a strong smell of old rope.

But then there was Deirdre Madden’s All About Home Economics. It had no connection for the Western Canon, and it didn’t have a pithy introduction by Joe O’Connor. Yet still it stormed off the shelves. Yes, there was charitable donation for the royalties, but that alone can’t explain the book’s success.

Nor can it explain the success down the years of the original Strunk and White or Waterhouse on Newspaper Style, when people bound photocopies of the original lecture notes and passed them about like contraband while the original texts were out of print.

The majority of textbooks are dull and workmanlike affairs. Some are just plain bad. But there are those which are transcendent, that bring the student to a world he or she could never have dreamed off. These are the textbooks that are loved almost as if they were actual people, because these are the books that have made people what they are.

One of the things about love is that you can never rent it. It has been bought, down through the years, but it has never been rented. Which sad truth makes the current small news story, lost in the empty bellowing of the referendum campaigners, all the sadder.

The Department of Education released a report yesterday claiming “Book rental schemes in schools could reduce family bills for school books by as much as 80%.” The Department is missing the point.

If you’re a disadvantaged child, your only hope of escape is through education. There is none other. If you’re going to be good as a student, you have to love your books, and how can you love something that you have to give back at the end of the year?

By imposing a book rental scheme the Department is subtly hinting that all this is a bit of a cod, really. We’re going to go through the motions for you Johnny, because we don’t want to be shamed on Prime Time, but once the school year is over we’re taking back our books and throwing you back to your damned flats.

Colm Toibín wrote a nonsensical piece in the Guardian recently claiming that it is an insult in Ireland to say that someone’s house had no books. That has never been an insult in Ireland, but Ireland would be better if it were.

If the Department of Education wanted to do those kids a favour they’d tell them to keep the books. They’d tell those kids that these aren’t books – these are magic carpets that can fly you to another world, way out of here, where you can make something of yourself and be all that you can be.

Would it cost money? Of course it’d cost money. But there’s always money. There are lots of subventions in education as it is. You can cut one to give to another. There are always ways.

Those cocktail making courses that were part of the Springboard initiative would be no great loss. Or how about the state subvention to private schools? I’m sure a bit of belt-tightening would do no harm there in these austere times. There are always ways to turn a shilling when you need it.

And these disadvantaged kids need it, because education is their only hope. Their only hope. What the Department has to realise at a very fundamental level is that education is the only thing that can save kids on the margins, and education can only come through school and schoolbooks.

If you want kids to love education, they have to love the books. And if they love the books, they can’t give them up at the end of the school year. They have to keep them and treasure them and know that they and they alone are the key to escape.

All that forcing children to give up their schoolbooks does is tell those children is that they’ve never been part of process, that this is all for show. That the world of books is only for those who can afford them, and not for those who just want to live a better world. And that’s a poor policy for any country.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Championship - Magnificent, in Spite of its Flaws

Francie Grehan surrounded by Tommy Joyce, Padraic Joyce, Alan Kerins and Ja Fallon. St Jarlath's Park, Tuam, 2001.

One of the quirks of the current football Championship structure is that, even though it takes twenty weeks to run the thing off, fully half the counties in Ireland are zapped over just two weekends.

Eight counties will rattle the dustbin on that weekend when June melts into July, and eight more bid glory a sweet adieu for another year fourteen days later. There are eleven games scheduled for that weekend of June 30th/July 1st – the eight Round 1 Qualifiers on Saturday, and then the second Ulster semi-final and both Leinster semis on Sunday. The Connacht Final is the grace note after the second Qualifier cull in the middle of July.

Having to keep tabs on eleven games in one weekend and nine in another is a Herculean ask of any football analyst. Thank goodness the RTÉ ones generally couldn’t bother their bottoms analysing anything. They and will merrily wing it, just like always. I believe Paddy McPlayer is playing very well for his club – isn’t that right Joe?

Of course, in between those rolling rocks of qualifier slaughter there is only one game. This year’s Munster Final sits in splendid isolation on Sunday July 8th, even though Kerry and Cork are on the one side of the draw this year. Can most ardent of Déise, Treaty or Banner patriots, each more excellent than the last, expect anything other than one-way traffic in that one?

Nobody on any of the provincial councils has a phone number for anyone on any of the other councils, or for Croke Park. Every year they try to get the schedule right, and every year they can’t quite seem to manage it.

It was ever thus. The qualifiers are a joke, the scheduling is bockety, and the national broadcaster makes a very middling effort to give Gaelic football the serious analysis it deserves.

And despite all this, the glory of the Championship itself, for all its flaws, still shines incandescent through the summer. It captivates, infuriates enthralls and enraptures us, summer after summer, year after year.

This time last year the Championship looked like a two-horse race between Cork and Kerry. But the rebels got cold-cocked in the quarter-finals when Mayo forgot their place behind the door and Kevin McMenamon did what so few have been able to do in over one hundred years of All-Ireland finals – deliver Kerry a knock-out blow.

One year on, and Dublin have blazed a trail for the rest. Cork and Kerry remain favourites of course, but where Dublin lead other can follow. Dublin can even follow themselves – they enjoy home advantage all through the Championship, and have the boost that winning the title brings.

Mickey Harte is trying to do what only Seán Boylan has done before in the modern era, and build two different Championship winning teams. Kildare’s knocking on the door is getting louder and louder. Derry remain a mystery and Mayo – well, Mayo are a question for another day.

Sligo and New York fired the first shots of the Championship the week before last, and there are five games this weekend to keep things rolling. Of those five, Galway’s trip to Roscommon and Donegal’s trip to Cavan are the most appealing to people outside the counties involved.

The RTÉ panelists will hold their noses after the games. Somebody will dutifully patronise the players, while emphasising that none of this matter a whizz outside of June 10th in Páirc Uí Chaoimh.

Which is exactly the attitude of people who can’t tell Jedward from Beethoven. To see the Championship as only being about the contenders is too see the great Pyramids at Giza and think they’re nice, alright, but wouldn’t they be even nicer with a nice bit of decking out the back?

The very existence of either the Championship or the Pyramids is a miracle in the 21st Century, and something we should make the most of while either or both are still here.

Somebody will win the Championship this year, but that’s not the Championship is about. The Championship is about all these fantastic local rivalries, the myriad border words that are its heart, its soul and its splendor.

Besides, it’s a knockout Championship. Anyone can win the thing if their sails catch the wind and the ball hops right. Reader, think on the Hyde on Sunday and the great summers ahead, and drink deeply of the fine and tawny wine of its glory.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Ní Scaipfear Sceimhle Saipan Go dTí Go bhFoghlaimeofar a Cheachtanna

Scríobh Malachy Clerkin 3,500 focal san Irish Times Dé Sathairn ar eachtaí Saipan deich mbliana ó shin, nuair a d'fhág Roy Keane foireann na hÉireann - nó nuair a tugadh bainisteoir na hÉireann bata is bóthar dó, mar a shíltear freisin. Scríobh Malachy nach bhfuil orainn nuair a bhfeicimid siar ach gáire náireach a dhéanamh.

Níl an cheart aige. Tá ceachtanna Saipan tábhachtach fós, ó thaobh bainisteoireachta, ó thaobh dualgais, ó thaobh meon na Gael - agus b'fhéidir ó thaobh pleidhcíochta an FAI freisin.

Ar an gcéad dul síos, ó thaobh más duine Mick nó duine Roy thú, is léir anois nach raibh an cheart ag ceachtar acu. Sin ceann de na fáthanna go bhfuil Saipan spéisiúil fós. Ba fíor-thragóid í - bhí toradh eachtraí Saipan i bhfad níos measa ná peacaí na bpríomh-aisteoirí.

Theip ar Mick McCarthy mar bhainisteoir i Saipan. Deirtear nach bhfuil ball foirne amháin níos tábhachtaí ná ball foirne eile, ach ní fíor é sin, agus níorbh fíor riamh é. Caithfear bainisteoir breitheamh a dhéanamh idir deacracht duine mar duine, agus bua imirithe an duine. Agus nuair atá an bua imirthe sách láidir, déantar eiseacht.

Smaoinigh ar Jack Charlton, agus an clú aige mar fear smachta. Chuir Jack David O'Leary ón bhfoireann ar dtús chun a cheannaireacht a dhéanamh soléir os comhair na foirne, ach nuair a bhí deacrachtaí óil ag Paul McGrath bhris Charlton gach riail chun McGrath a thógáil slán. Thuig Charlton tábhacht McGrath ina fhoireann, agus mar sin rinne Charlton gach iarracht ar son McGrath.

Ba é teipeadh McCarthy nár thuig sé tábhacht Keane ina fhoireann féin. Seachas Keane, beidh gach duine acu ag breathnú ar an gCorn Domhanda sa mbaile ar an teilifís. Bhuaigh Roy Keane cluichí ina aonar sa bhfeachtas chun an gCorn Domhanda 2002.

D'aimsigh Jason McAteer an cúl buaite in aghaidh na hÍsiltíre, ach ba é Keane a bhuaigh an cluiche nuair a rinne sé scrios ar Marc Overmars, scrios a thaispeán do na hÍsiltírigh nach mbuafaidís tada bog i mBleá Cliath. Nuair a d'aimsigh McAteer a chúl, cá ndéacaigh sé? Chun Roy Keane, croí agus anam na foirne.

Ba cheart do Mick McCarthy tuiscint gurbh é sásamh Roy Keane a chéad cloch ar a phaidrín. Ba chuma an costas, caithfear Roy a choimead sásta. Theip ar sin, agus bhris gach rud eile as sin amach.

Theip ar Keane freisin. Níor thuig Keane - nó níor bhac leis - go bhfuil dualgas ar bhall foirne glacadh le cad atá ar súil leis an bhfoireann go léir. Níl air aonú leis, agus tá go deimhin air glacadh leis. Tá an duallgas sin níos láidre arís nuair atá an ball foirne ina chaptaen. Níor thuig - nó arís, níor bhac - Roy Keane go raibh an fhoireann níos tábhachtaí ná a shásamh féin, agus is smál go deo ar a shaothar peile é.

Tá eachtraí Saipan spéisiúil ó thaobh meoin na nGael mar ba é Roy Keane ar duine de na gcéad laochra Gael nár shíl go raibh an dara áit ceart go leor, go raibh an craic níos tábhachtaí ná an bua, gurbh chóir bheith i gcónaí ag gabháil leithscéal go bhfuil bacach Gaelach anseo leis na h-uaisle.

Bhí an Tíogar Ceilteach faoi lánsheol nuair a tharla Saipan, agus thug Roy Keane ceannaireacht duinn ins na blianta roimh Saipan conas a dul fúinn i measc na h-uaisle. Thaispeán Roy Keane go raibh Gael gach cuid chomh maith le aon duine eile, agus ní chóir do Ghael fanacht taobh thiar an dorais as seo amach.

Feictear oidhreacht Keane i bhfoirne rugbaí na hÉireann anois, idir na cúigí agus an fhoireann náisiúnta féin. Dúirt Ronan O'Gara agus Brian O'Driscoll beirt go minic ar an meas atá acu ar Roy Keane. Bhuail Roy Keane slí cróga nua amach agus lean na sluaite ina dhiaidh.

Scríobh Malachy Clerkin "if there’s a lasting legacy from Saipan that exists away from the barstool and the broken dreams, it’s that the FAI is inarguably a more serious outfit now than it was then" - má tá oidhreacht mharthanach ó Shaipan, amach ó thithe tábhairne agus brionglóidí briste, is ea go bhfuil an FAI gan amhras níos dáiríre ná mar a bhíodar ansin. Gan amhras? Tógfaidh an Spailpín an ceann sin le gráinnín salainn.

Seacht mbliana tar éis Saipan, bhí seans ag an FAI bualadh marfach a bhuail ar an ndallamullóg, nuair a chuir Thierry Henry a lámh ar an liathróid. Cad a rinne siad? Ar chuir siad dlí nua os comhair FIFA a chuirfeadh stop ar an ndallamullóg, a chuireadh éiric nua ina aghaidh, a thógadh gaiscíocht ar ais sa sacar?

Níor chuir. D'iarradar ar Sepp Blatter Poblacht na hÉireann a dhéanamh mar an 33ú fhoireann ag an gCorn Domhanda, agus chuireadh náire ar an náisiúin nuair a bhris Blatter ag gáire ag caint faoi. 33ú fhoireann. Ní dhéanfadh Blatter gáire in aghaidh Roy Keane - sin í an dífríocht.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Is It Really All Aoife Kavanagh's Fault?

The longer this Prime Time Investigates debacle goes on – and the BAI Report has by no means put an end to it – the more Aoife Kavanagh looks like being the only person to come out of it with her dignity intact. There is no small irony in that, an eloquent reflection of what a mess the issue remains.

Aoife Kavanagh has taken the fall for the broadcast of the spectacular libel and she is absolutely to blame for a lot of it. Just not all of it. Not all of it by a long chalk.

It’s easy enough to see what happened to Kavanagh. These things can go to the most level of heads. Even the name, Mission to Prey – who couldn’t but fall in love with so glorious a name? You could be in RTÉ fifty years and never get a chance to use it.

You can sense the sense of mission too – 21st Century Ireland rising up to strike a blow against the long oppressor, the dead hand of Irish Catholicism and Roman rule. Ms Kavanagh must have felt like a secular Joan of Arc, in the vanguard of the revolution.

As for the resistance to Father Reynolds’ offer of a paternity test – well, you can see how that would spoil the effect of the TV report, like news crews giving food to famine victims. A penitent priest, having his say, sobbing his mea culpa, doesn’t have the same oomph as the classic TV doorstep interview. There’s no gotcha! effect if the mark comes clean.

So it’s quite easy to see how Ms Kavanagh got carried away, as we all get carried away. What’s considerably harder to understand is how nobody – nobody at all – doubled-checked any of this stuff. The Maid of Enniscorthy is put to the torch while a huge tail of middle management, long and scaly, stands around, shrugging its shoulders and saying nothing to do me with me, bud at each other.

RTÉ, like any public body, is replete with middle managers and meetings and bureaucracy. Managers generate meetings, meetings generate minutes, the minutes generate more meetings – you know yourself how it goes.

Except in the extraordinary case of the meetings to do with this one particular episode of Prime Time Investigates. Nobody took any minutes at the meetings. Not a one. In the age of pens, pencils, papers, iPads, iPhones, blackberries, nobody took any notes whatsoever.

Minister for Communications Pat Rabbitte was at his fulminating best over the weekend, condemning Mission to Prey as being a “shoddy, unprofessional, cavalier, damaging piece of work.” Yesterday morning Pat Rabbitte met with the RTÉ Authority. Reader, if you were the Minister, what would you have done?

Would you have echoed the current Minister for Education eighteen years ago and demanded a head, on the basis that RTÉ has got lazy and smug, and needs a full overhaul? As a member of the Labour Party, would you have agreed with the NUJ’s assessment that Aoife Kavanagh is not being treated fairly?

Or would you wash your hands the thing, leave Aoife Kavanagh toasting on her pyre, and then inform the people that they should move along, there's nothing to see here? How Denis O’Brien must be quaking in his very boots at the thought of this fearless Rabbitte.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

More Woe for the Minister for Misfortune

When was the last time Phil Hogan had a good night’s sleep? It must be a long, long time ago. The household charge and the water charge were bad, but now the Minister for Misfortune has gone and signed the behemoth, the destructor, the Ender of All Things: another EU referendum.

Once the actual Compact was signed in Brussels last year, the Government’s position was heads-straight-into-the-sand and fervent and honest pray that, if it be the Supreme Court’s will, this cup would pass from them. No chance of that – when the bad luck is on you, it’s on your dog and your cat.

A referendum, then, and the thing settled once and for all. Of course, if the Government were interested in settling things once and for all, they would put a much further reaching referendum on the table, asking the sovereign nation if we wanted to be grown-up about the full and true nature of European Union. But no; as it has done on so many issues in its first year in power, the Government has shown extraordinary cowardice in the place where leadership ought to be, and chosen what it hopes to be the path of least resistance.

In that minimalist light, the Government’s task should have been simple. The pro-Treaty campaign should have been about putting the fear of the Living God in the nation, showing them an Ireland that is so horrible, bitter, poor and repressed that it could only have come about through either rejection of this miraculous treaty or else as the issue of a horrible drunken tryst between Mr Frank McCourt and Ms Peig Sayers.

Having terrified the nation with a vision they will never forget, it’s then an easy matter to just blow the whistle and shout “all aboard!” for the lovely EU Fiscal Treaty. The train is instantly filled with a majority of the shocked and relieved.

The Government have to conjour this Vision of Woe because their own and the previous government’s attitude to the bailout has left a hostage to fortune. The problem is this: borrowing, in and of itself, isn’t actually a bad thing.

All governments borrow. If you’re going to borrow money, then the current borrowing rate of 3% is manifestly better than 11% or more in the open market. The bailout is good business, and that’s clear to anyone sufficiently numerate to count the difference between three and eleven. You don’t even need to take off your shoes to do the math.

But the Government spent the past two years, in power and in opposition, saying that the bailout was the very end of Irish sovereignty itself. They can’t now turn around and say musha, it's not that bad at all now, when you think about it.

Therefore, the only option left is to say that while the bailout is a Very Bad Thing, shooting down the referendum is Peig McCourt, Frank Sayers, Worse than Cromwell, The End of Life as We Know It, or any combination of the foregoing. They’ve already committed to the Bailout as Disaster course; they’re stuck with it.

A pity, then,  that that nobody told the Government about the election in France when they were creating their ogre. If François Hollande gets elected in France, he’s going to renegotiate the Treaty. That takes the crusher to the Ogre of Doom, and softens his cough rightly.

If the Government’s plan is a Fear-of-God campaign, where disaster will surely follow the fall of the Treaty, why hasn’t anybody told Monsieur Hollande? Monsieur Hollande does not seem to think that Doom, Death and Disaster are the natural and inevitable consequences of this Treaty not going through. Where does that leave the Irish Government, who must declare the opposite to pass their referendum?

It leaves the Government in the position of the poker player whose bluff has been called. At the start, when there was a cranks' alliance against the Treaty, the Government could appeal to the mature section of society. Thing is, the mature section like to holiday in France, and are fully aware of what an Hollande win might mean.

As for Éamon Ó Cuív’s solo running – it’s a nightmare for the establishment. Ó Cuív is seen as a crank in Doheny and Nesbitt’s, but he’s a man with a lot of respect in bars that don’t have wine lists. He should be underestimated at the Government’s utter peril.

In the interests of full disclosure, your correspondent will be voting Tá himself. While France is in a position to renegotiate, being rich, Ireland is not, being poor. Only thing is An Spailpín is generally in a minority in his opinions, and there are enough people out there who have been stoked beyond the rational in their fury that will vote Níl on the merest encouragement, out of sheer bitterness and betrayal.

And the Government won’t be able to blame their predecessors on this one. This mess is all of their own making. How could they not know the French elections were happening and that the Europe would be central to the debate in France? It’s incompetence on a staggering scale.